With The Sopranos in mind, I was thinking about the last Springsteen/E Street Band tour in ’99-’00, and thinking to myself, “there is no way that guy in the scarves and bandanas playing a mean guitar and jumping around onstage with Bruce and the boys is “Silvio,” the scowling, jowly mobster. But he is – must be a pretty damn good actor. I interviewed Steven Van Zandt in 1998:
Steven Van Zandt is an important artist (Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul), songwriter and political activist (the anti-apartheid project “Sun City”), who is also guitarist and de facto leader of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as well as co-producer of Springsteen’s great albums The River and Born In the U.S.A., which between them have sold almost 20 million copies. Van Zandt has also written songs for and/or produced Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Ronnie Spector, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Lords of the New Church, Lone Justice, Darlene Love, and Meatloaf.
Steven Van Zandt was born November 22, 1950 in Boston, but grew up in South
Jersey. “The first record I remember buying was Little Anthony and the Imperials’ ‘Tears On My Pillow.’ My emotional involvement increased a bit when I was 11 or 12 with ‘Twist and Shout’ by the Isley Brothers, ‘Pretty Little Angel Eyes’ by Curtis Lee, and ‘Sherry’ by the Four Seasons. I didn’t have too many records, but I was passionate about the ones I had. I had to re-buy ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Sherry’ because I wore them out,” Van Zandt writes in his manifesto, found on his website.
“I had my first epiphany some time during the 77th playing of ‘Pretty Little Angel
Eyes.’ It was an overwhelming, deeply spiritual, exciting yet calming warm flood
of emotion that I didn’t understand but I knew connected me in some permanent
way to music. It was either an epiphany or puberty kicking in – I’ll never know –
but it was intense.
“I had my second epiphany June 13, 1964. The Rolling Stones played the Hollywood Palace show on TV and that was it for me. They may have been from another planet like the Beatles but somehow they were accessible, and relatable. They were ugly, aloof, sloppy, crazy, casual, confident, and totally out of place. They were perfect. It even made sense to me that Dean Martin, who I was and am a big fan of, made fun of them and put them down. I had no problem then and have no trouble now reconciling these two contradictory species that coexist in me.”
The very next night Van Zandt went to his first rock show at a Sea Bright beach club and saw the Mods, one of the big local bands. “In my mind the Mods were the living embodiment of the Stones fantasy I had just seen on TV. The timely juxtaposition was awesome. Here were local guys actually doing it. My attraction to bands was essentially two things. First, the camaraderie, the family, the gang, the team, the group of friends hanging out together appealed to me. Secondly, it allowed those with a limited amount of talent but a lot of determination, such as myself, to participate.
“In 1965 Bob Dylan took the folk and blues traditions, and the integral consciousness of existing reality, and went electric. His profound impact and influence on the Beatles – the archetypal pop band, the Rolling Stones – the archetypal rock band, and with the road paved by the Byrds – the archetypal sound of the new consciousness, changed everything forever. The release of Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was symbolically, if not literally, the birth of the art form of rock.
“Rock music is a lifestyle. It is art. It is cynicism. It is singers who are great singers who do not have great voices. It is totally dependent on live performance. It has lyrics that are personally expressive and deeply emotional. It demands attention. It is usually written or cowritten by the singer. It is judged by its influence, credibility and respect. It is bands. The classic rock artist’s image is dour, serious, frustrated, confused, controversial, political, spiritual, isolated, and a threat to society’s status quo.”
Van Zandt set about to make real his vision of rock. He was friends with Bruce Springsteen and played in Springsteen’s Steel Mill in ’69-’70, and in the Bruce Springsteen Band in ’71. Van Zandt went his own way when Springsteen was signed to Columbia in ’72 and joined with another local singer, Southside Johnny Lyons, to form a ’60s-style, horn-driven rock and soul band: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
The band stumbled upon a club in Asbury Park, The Stone Pony, that was about to close, and persuaded the owner to let them do their thing: sweaty covers of ’50s and ’60s soul, blues and R&B classics, interspersed with atavistic originals provided by Van Zandt and Springsteen. “The Stone Pony didn’t close; in fact, it expanded. Between Bruce’s thing and our thing, it became a scene all of a sudden. Then Bruce asked me to join his band for a seven-week tour in ’75 – I ended up staying seven years.”
Southside and the Jukes finally got a record contract in ’76; although Van Zandt was no longer in the band, he had written many of the band’s songs and arranged most of the others, so he was the logical choice to produce the band’s first album, I Don’t Want To Go Home.
“Production is made up of four things: composition, arrangement, performance, sound,” he says. “I had been a performer for quite a while. I was always an arranger. I had been writing a little bit, but the sound was something I had to learn about. It took a while. Having grown up in the ’60s, I didn’t think ’70s music sounded very good: everything was close-miced and stale and dead, without the live excitement of the ’60s records. I wanted to bring things back to what I grew up with. I have basically tried to do that ever since: natural, organic, as live as possible.”
Van Zandt succeeded wildly – I Don’t Want To Go Home is one of the great albums of the ’70s. Lyons’ voice is an amazing, soulful instrument that inhabits great song after great song: Van Zandt wrote the tuneful, swinging, horns-and-strings title track, and the hilarious, jaunty, funky duet between Lyons and the great Lee Dorsey, “How Come You Treat Me So Bad.”
Springsteen contributed the simmering, understated “The Fever,” generating Lyons’ most passionate, nuanced performance, and “You Mean So Much To Me” – another great duet – this one with ex-Ronnette Ronnie Spector. The inspired covers include Solomon Burke’s “Got To Get You Off My Mind,” and an amazing version of Sam and Dave’s “Broke Down Piece Of Man,” featuring Lyons trading lines with an inspired Van Zandt.
The first time around that he played with the E Street Band, Van Zandt also wrote for, and produced the very fine second and third Southside albums: This Time It’s For Real and Hearts Of Stone. Critiques Van Zandt: “They were all very different, and all very differently flawed. I would learn one thing and screw up another. The first one was based on the live show, and my rhythm guitar was a big part of that sound. I basically eliminated it from the record because I wasn’t really in the band anymore, but I took out one of the main elements of the sound and I’ve regretted that ever since.”
Throughout the ’70s Van Zandt, one of Springsteen’s oldest friends, became a more and more integral part of the E Street Band’s live show and Springsteen’s recordings. He arranged the horns for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on Born To Run in ’75. He played guitar, and was given “production assistance” credit for ’78’s Darkness On the Edge Of Town, but Van Zandt came to the fore as player and coproducer (with Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin) on ’80’s The River.
A phenomenal two-record set that confirmed Springsteen’s greatness as an artist and proved the E Street Band (Springsteen – vocals and guitar, Van Zandt – harmony vocals, guitar, Clarence Clemons – sax, Danny Federici – organ, Garry Tallent – bass, Max Weinberg – drums, Roy Bittan – piano) to be one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll units of all time, The River has the scope and particularity of a great novel and just plain rocks.
Side Two of the original vinyl is not only one of the great rock album sides, it in fact recapitulates important developments in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. On “Hungry Heart” Van Zandt finds the holy grail of the perfect drum sound: Mighty Max Weinberg’s (who is also bandleader for the Conan O’Brien Show) snare thwaps like a slap in the face as Springsteen gleefully sings in his upper register one of his strangest songs: a song that exults in the sheer exuberance of following one’s heart, regardless of consequences. Amoral exuberance is what the original rock ‘n’ roll explosion was all about.
“Out In the Street” is in the classic tradition of work-hard-for-the-man, party-harder-for-yourself of songs from “Rip It Up” to “Working For the Weekend.”
“Crush On You’ continues the amoral exuberance with humor and style: while his voice nearly blows out his mic, Springsteen’s roaming eye and gyrating pelvis celebrate the instant, almost impersonal, rush of a crush.
Springsteen’s exuberant spirit is frustrated on “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” as delights from women to lamps are dangled in front of him – all just out of reach – invoking such anthems to frustration as “Summertime Blues” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The ambivalence of longing is beautifully, touchingly addressed on the rolling ballad “I Wanna Marry You.”
In the course of the side, Springsteen has gone from generalized lust and jean-splitting energy to a specific longing for one woman – a young, single, working mother of two. Two amazing couplets stand out as the singer confesses his firmly grounded, sober love:
“To say I’ll make your dreams come true would be wrong,
But maybe darlin’ I could help them along,” and,
“There’s something happy and there’s something sad,
‘Bout wanting somebody oh so bad.”
Finally, the heedless exuberance of the original rock ‘n’ roll revolution is turned on its head as Consequences – as awesome and inexorable as death – raise their ugly heads on the lovely, dreadful “The River.”
A young man from the symbolic and literal darkness of a valley escapes to frolic in verdant fields and to swim in a cleansing, soothing river with his girlfriend, who becomes pregnant as a result. The price paid for their brief glimpses of freedom is the bondage of marriage and a construction job for the singer on his 19th birthday. There are few things sadder than youth’s vision of limitless possibilities narrowed to grim responsibility –
“Now I just act like I don’t remember, Mary acts like she don’t care” –
a responsibility that laughs at the very exuberance that rock ‘n’ roll celebrates – “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Springsteen doesn’t have the answer, but he has found a disturbing and profound question.
Van Zandt cowrote and coproduced (with Springsteen) Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ remarkable comeback albums Dedication (including the hit single “This Little Girl”) in ’81, and On the Line (with “Out Of Work”) in ’82.
He formed Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul and released the splendid Men Without Women in ’82, Voice Of America in ’84, Freedom No Compromise in ’87 and Revolution in ’89 (he regrets producing himself – “I have no patience and have basically put out demos” – but as always, he’s too hard on himself). As a result of his travels and “political awakening,” Van Zandt assembled, wrote and produced (with Arthur Baker) the exceptionally successful anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City” in ’85.
After 30 years in music, this man of conscience and action is now trying something new: beginning January of ’99 he is acting the role of Silvio Dante in HBO’s acclaimed dramatic series, The Sopranos, about a present-day New Jersey Mafia family.
And as a result he has become more famous than ever and a serious actor. The HBO Sopranos site brings us up to date:
- In July 2000 he concluded a 15-month world tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band which broke all box office records internationally. His fifth solo album, the critically acclaimed Born Again Savage, was released in 1999 on his own label, Renegade Nation.
Last year Van Zandt contributed the song “Affection” to the second “Sopranos” soundtrack CD, Peppers & Eggs, from his unreleased album, “Nobody Loves and Leaves Alive,” performed by his 90’s garage band, The Lost Boys.
In spring 2001, Van Zandt joined forces with Jon Weiss of Cavestomp! to present a series of live garage rock concerts at a downtown New York Club, the Village Underground. By the end of the year the series had showcased some 50 new bands along with such legends as Barry & The Remains, The Troggs, The Pretty Things, and Dave Davies of the Kinks. In addition, he was the catalyst for establishing the first garage rock section ever to be a part of a major music retail change – all 40 stores of The Wiz in the New York tri-state area. His passion and support of the genre also initiated a national search for new, unsigned talent sponsored by The Wiz, featuring 20 unsigned bands.